The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded a decision issued by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB), holding that its decisions in Arthrex and VirnetX also apply to ex parte examinations at the PTAB. In re: Boloro Global Ltd., Case Nos. 19-2349, -2351, -2353 (Fed. Cir. July 7, 2020) (Dyk, J.).
The issue regarding ex parte appeals started to take shape in October 2019—in the context of an inter partes review (IPR) proceeding—when the Federal Circuit held that the appointment of administrative patent judges (APJs) at the PTAB is unconstitutional. Arthrex v. Smith & Nephew (IP Update, Vol. 22, No. 11). APJs are appointed by the secretary of commerce in consultation with the director of the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) pursuant to 35 USC § 6(a). In Arthrex, The Federal Circuit determined that APJs are principal officers and are not constitutionally appointed, because as principal officers they must be appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate.
Having concluded that the appointment of APJs violated the Appointments Clause, the Federal Circuit held that “where the final decision was rendered by a panel of APJs who were not constitutionally appointed,” and “where the parties presented an Appointments Clause challenge on appeal,” the decision below “must be vacated and remanded.” The Court further instructed that, on remand, a new panel of APJs must be designated and a new hearing granted. The Court put a bookend on its holding, ruling that where an Appointment Clause challenge was not raised in an opening brief, the challenge was waived. So PTAB decisions that issued before Arthrex, if timely appealed and subject to an Appointment Clause challenge in the opening brief, could be vacated as unconstitutional and remanded for a new panel of APJs.
In May 2020, the Federal Circuit extended its decision in Arthrex to final decisions issued by APJs in inter partes re-examination proceedings (VirnetX v. Cisco Systems). In VirnetX, the Court discerned no differences between the duties of an APJ in an IPR proceeding as compared to an inter partes examination proceeding, because both proceedings involve third-party challenges to an issued patent and in both proceedings APJs exercise significant authority by issuing final decisions that decide the patentability of the challenged claims, and the PTO director does not have an independent way of reviewing those final determinations.
The present case arose in the context of an appeal from an examiner in ex parte prosecution. Boloro argued that APJs in ex parte appeals also exercise significant authority by virtue of the matters on which they are asked to render judgment, and carry out similar functions when they carry out their function of deciding IPRs. Boloro asserted that although ex parte appeals were not specifically addressed in Arthrex, the PTAB also has the power in ex parte appeals to disqualify counsel, to admit people pro hac vice, and to order appellants to additionally brief any matter that the PTAB considers to be of assistance in reaching a reasoned decision on the pending appeal before it ultimately decides the patentability of the claims at issue.
The Federal Circuit agreed with Boloro and saw “no principled reason to depart” from its decisions in Arthrex and VirnetX in the context of ex parte examination.